Santa Catalina Island is a beautiful resort, only 26 miles and about sixty-five minutes from the coast of Los Angeles. The island was first developed for tourism in the late nineteenth century but really took off in 1919 when William Wrigley, of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame, bought most of it.
Always popular with local boaters, yachtsmen and sailors, the island had its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s when it was the home of regular Big Band concerts, which were broadcast by radio around the country and the world. Regular ferry boats brought thousands of Angelenos to Avalon, Catalina’s main town, each day and its proximity to Los Angeles made it a hugely popular vacation destination before the age of jet travel or the interstate highway system.
Thanks to limited development, the island continues to be a quaint, compact tourist destination for cruise ships, day-trippers and getaway guests. I headed out from the port of Long Beach to spend the weekend on Catalina, seeking out its more luxurious side. I found a great mix of sandy beaches, perfect weather, delicious food and great music too.
The Catalina Express jet catamarans make multiple trips each day from their ports in San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. A “Commodore Lounge” upgrade is available, offering priority boarding (a big deal on crowded boats) and a private, inside lounge with waiter service and very comfortable seating.
What to Do
I headed out for the annual Jazz Trax Jazz Festival. The music festival is held in the classic Avalon Casino building (a giant theater and ballroom that was never a gambling casino) over two weekends each October. One afternoon, I took out a sea kayak and explored the coastline, which included an encounter with some sea lions. There are several rental options around the island, I rented my kayak from the shack in front of the Descanso Beach Club.
Where to Eat
The island is filled with restaurants, sadly many of them are the tourist-type and don’t care about return business. We had several excellent dinners at the Bluewater Grill, located on the beach, right in the center of town. Delicious, fresh seafood and a great Caesar salad with grilled chicken for us landlubbers.
Where to Stay
I skipped the cramped and “rustic” boutique hotels and went for a luxury vacation rental in the island’s exclusive Hamilton Cove community. The iconic terraced, hillside development, visible from the ferry as you approach Avalon Harbor, has a guard-gated entrance, an oceanside pool and spa and a full gym. I stayed in a two-bedroom unit from Beachy Rentals with dramatic ocean views from its large balcony. The balcony had several sets of high tables and chairs and extended the entire length of the unit, offering both bedrooms and the living room French door access. The unit comes with a golf cart, a necessity for getting around the island.
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